Click here to get started today!
A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography
Hermas, Known As the Shepherd
Hermas (2). In the latter half of the 2nd cent. there was in circulation a book of visions and allegories purporting to be written by one Hermas and commonly known as The Shepherd. This book was treated with respect bordering on that paid to the canonical Scriptures of N.T. and was publicly read in some churches. A passage from it is quoted by Irenaeus (iv. 20 p. 253) with the words "Well said the Scripture," a fact which Eusebius notes (H. E. v. 8). Probably n the time of Irenaeus the work was publicly read in the Gallican churches. The mutilated commencement of the Stromateis of Clement of Alexandria opens in the middle of a quotation from The Shepherd and about ten times elsewhere he cites the book always with a complete acceptance of the reality and divine character of the revelations made to Hermas but without suggesting who Hermas was or when he lived. Origen who frequently cites the book (in Rom. xvi. 14 vol. iv. p. 683) considered it divinely inspired. He suggests as do others after him but apparently on no earlier authority that it was written by the Hermas mentioned in Rom_16:14. His other quotations shew that less favourable views of the book were current in his time. They are carefully separated from quotations from the canonical books and he generally adds a saving clause giving the reader permission to reject them; he speaks of it (in Matt. xix. 7 vol. iii. p. 644) as a book current in the church but not acknowledged by all and (de Princ. iv. 11) as despised by some. Eusebius (iii. 25) places the book among the orthodox Î½á½¹Î¸Î± with the Acts of Paul Revelation of Peter Epistle of Barnabas etc. Elsewhere (iii. 3) while unable to place it among the á½Î¼Î¿Î»Î¿Î³Î¿Ï…Î¼á½³Î½Î± because rejected by some he records its public use in churches and by some most eminent writers and that it was judged by some most necessary for elementary instruction in the faith. Athanasius (Ep. Fest. 39 vol. i. pt. ii. p. 963) classes it with some of the deutero-canonical books of O.T. and with The Teaching of the Apostles as not canonical but useful for catechetical instruction. It is found in the Sinaitic MS. following the Ep. of Barnabas as an appendix to the N.T. After the 4th cent. it rapidly passed out of ecclesiastical use in the East.
The Western tradition deserves more attention, as internal evidence shews the book to have been composed at Rome. The MURATORIAN FRAGMENT on the Canon tells us that it had been written during the episcopate of Pius by his brother Hernias, a period which the writer speaks of as within then living memory. He concludes that the book ought to be read but not publicly in the church among the prophetic writings, the number of which was complete, nor among the apostolic. The statement that the book not only might but ought to be read is a high recognition of the value attributed to it by the writer, and we gather that at least in some places its use in church was then such as to lead some to regard it as on a level with the canonical Scriptures. Tertullian, in one of his earliest treatises, de Oratione, has a reference to its influence on the practice of churches which shews it to have enjoyed high authority at the time, an authority which Tertullian's argument does not dispute. It had probably been used in church reading and translated into Latin, since Tertullian describes it by the Latin title Pastor, and not by a Greek title, as he usually does in the case of Greek writings. Some ten years later, after Tertullian had become a Montanist, and the authority of The Shepherd is urged in behalf of readmitting adulterers to communion, he rejects the book as not counted worthy of inclusion in the canon, but placed by every council, even those of the Catholic party, among false and apocryphal writings ( de Pudic. c. 10). Quoting Hebrews, he says that this is at least more received than that apocryphal Shepherd of the adulterers (c. 20). The phrase "more received" warns us to take cum grano Tertullian's assertion as to the universal rejection of The Shepherd; but doubtless the distinction between apostolic and later writings was then drawn more sharply, and in the interval between Tertullian's two writings The Shepherd may have been excluded from public reading in many churches which before had admitted it. The Liberian papal catalogue (probably here, as elsewhere, following the catalogue of Hippolytus) states that under the episcopate of Pius his brother Ermas wrote a book in which the commands and precepts were contained which the angel gave him when he came to him in the habit of a shepherd. Yet, while refusing to assign the book to apostolic times, it makes no doubt of the reality of the angelic appearance to Hermas. Later biographical notices of popes state that the message given to Hermas was that Easter should always be celebrated on a Sunday. These clearly shew that by then all knowledge of the book had been lost; and further notices shew a confusion between the name of Hermas and that of his book, which imply that the book was no longer in use. Jerome, when quoting Eusebius about the book ( de Vir. Ill. 10, vol. ii. 845), adds that among the Latins it was almost unknown. He speaks contemptuously of it ( in Habac. i. 14, vol. vi. 604), for it seems certain that the book of Hermas is here referred to. It is marked in the Gelasian decree as apocryphal. Notwithstanding, there;are indications that some use of the book continued in the West, e.g. the fact being that there still exist some 20 MSS. of the Latin version. In the African church of the 4th cent. we find f rom the list in the Codex Claromontanus (Westcott, Canon N. T. p. 557) that it was placed with the Acts of Paul and the Revelation of St. Peter as an appendix to the N.T. books; and it occupies a similar place in the Sinaitic MS., the only Greek Bible known to have contained it. But in some existing Latin MSS. it is placed with the apocryphal books of O.T.
The book is in three parts. The first part consists of visions. Hermas tells that he who had brought him up had sold him to Rome to a lady named Rhoda; that after a considerable time he renewed his acquaintance with her and began to love her as a sister; that he saw her one day bathing in the Tiber and assisted her out of the water; that admiring her beauty he thought how happy he should be if he had a wife like her in person and disposition. Further than this his thought did not go. But a little time after he had a vision. He fell asleep, and in his dream was walking and struggling on ground so rugged and broken that it was impossible to pass. At length he succeeded in crossing the water by which his path had been washed away, and coming into smooth ground knelt to confess his sins to God. Then the heavens were opened and he saw Rhoda saluting him from the sky. On his asking her what she did there, she told him that she had been taken up to accuse him, because God was angry with him for having sinned in thought against her. Then Hermas was overwhelmed with horror and fear, not knowing how he could abide the severity of God's judgment, if such a thought as his was marked as sin. Rhoda now passes out of his dream and he sees a venerable aged lady clad in shining garments sitting on a great white chair and holding a book in her hand. She asks why he, usually so cheerful, is now so sad. On telling her, she owns what a sin any impure thought would be in one so chaste, so singleminded and so innocent as he; but tells him that this is not why God is displeased with him, but because of the sins of his children, whom he, through false indulgence, had allowed to corrupt themselves, but to whom repentance was open if he would warn them. Then she reads to him out of her book, but of all she reads he can remember nothing save the last comforting sentence, and that all which preceded was terrible and threatening. She parted from him with the words, "Play the man, Hermas." Hermas was an elderly man with a grown-up family, and Rhoda must have been at least as old as himself. If the tale is an invented one, this is certainly an incongruity; but if it be a true story, it is quite conceivable that the thought may have occurred to Hermas, who seems to have been not happy in his family relations, how much happier it would have been for him if Rhoda had been his wife; and that afterwards, in a dream, this thought may have recurred to his memory as a sin to be repented of. The vision presents all the characteristics of a real dream; the want of logical connexion between the parts, the changes of scene, the fading out of Rhoda as principal figure and the appearance of the aged lady in her room; the substitution of quite a different offence for the sinful thought which weighed on his conscience at the beginning; the physical distress in his sleep at first presenting the idea of walking on and on without being able to find an outlet, afterwards of mental grief at words spoken to him; the long reading of which only the words spoken immediately before awaking are remembered,â€”all these indicate that we are reading not a literary invention like the dream of the Pilgrim's Progress, but the recital, a little dressed up it may be, of a dream which the narrator really had. In another vision, a year after, he saw again the lady and her book, and received the book to copy, but still it conveyed no idea to his mind. He then set himself by fasting and prayer to learn its meaning, and after about a fortnight was gratified. He learns, too, that the lady is not, as he had imagined, the sibyl, but the church, and that she appeared as old because she was created first of all, and for her sake the world was made. Ephesians, which probably suggested this doctrine of the pre-existence of the church, is one of the N.T. books of whose use by Hermas there are clear traces. In subsequent visions we have a different account of the matter; he sees in each a woman more and more youthful in appearance, whom he is taught to identify with the church of his former vision; and it is explained that he saw her old at first because the spirit of Christians had been broken by infirmity and doubt, and afterwards more youthful as by the revelations made him their spirit had been renewed. After his first two visions Hermas watched eagerly for new revelations, and set himself to obtain them by fasting and prayer. In those later visions, while the pictures presented to his mind are such as we can well believe to have been dream representations, the explanations given of them have a coherence only to be found in the thoughts of a waking man. This is still more true of the second and third parts of the work. At the end of the first part he has the vision in which he sees a man dressed like a shepherd, who tells him that he is the angel of repentance and the guardian to whose care he had been entrusted. >From this shepherd he receives, for his instruction and that of the church, the "Commandments," which form the second, and the "Similitudes," which form the third part of the work. The Similitudes were probably suggested by N.T. parables, though the frigid compositions of Hermas fall infinitely below these.
The literary merits of the work of Herman are of little importance compared with the fundamental question as to the date of the book and whether it claims to be an inspired document, the writer of which aspires to no literary merit, save that of faithfully recording the revelations made him. Are we to suppose that Hernias in relating his visions intended no more than to present edifying lessons in an allegorical form, and that it was merely as an instructive fiction that the book was regarded when it was introduced into public reading in the church? Donaldson says: "If the book be not inspired, then either the writer fancied he had seen these visions, or tried to make other people fancy this, or he clothed the work in a fictitious form designedly and undisguisedly. If he did the first, he must have been silly. If he did the second he must have been an impostor." But as he believes the author to have been "an honest upright, and thoughtful man," he concludes that he did the third, "as multitudes of others have done after him, with John Bunyan at their head." If we took this view we could lay no stress on anything the author tells us about himself and his family. These details might be fictitious, as the angels, the towers, and the beasts of the visions. We could not even assume that his name was Hermas for the narrator of the visions, who bears this name, might be an imaginary personage But we ourselves feel bound to reject this as altogether mistaken criticism, and as an application to the 2nd cent. of the standards of to-day. To us it seems plain that, whatever the author intended, the first readers of Hermas did not receive the book as mere allegorical fiction. Bunsen (Hippolytus and his Age, i. 315) tells us that Niebuhr used to pity the Athenian ( sic, Qu. Roman? ) Christians for being obliged to listen to this "good but dull novel." If the authorities of the church regarded it merely as a novel, would they have appointed it for public reading? At the end of the century Clement and others shew no doubt of the reality of the visions Were the men of a couple of generations earlier likely to have been more severe in their judgments, and would an angelic appearance seem to them so incredible that one who related it would be regarded as the narrator of a fiction that he did not intend to be believed? The book itself contains directions to the rulers of the Roman church to send the volume to foreign churches. If we suppose it really was sent to them stamped as a prophetic writing by the authority of the Roman church, we have an explanation of the consideration, only second to that of the canonical Scriptures, which it enjoyed in so many distant churches. A man at the present day might publish a story of visions, and be persuaded that his readers would not take him seriously, but no one in the 2nd cent. would be entitled to hold such a persuasion, and if the book of Hermas was accepted as inspired, the writer cannot be acquitted of the responsibility of having foreseen and intended this result. Mosheim, de Rebus Christ. ante Const. 163, 166, holds that the writer must either have been "mente captus et fanaticus," or else "scientem volentemque fefellisse," the latter being the opinion to which he inclines, believing that the lawfulness of pious frauds was a fixed opinion with many Christians at the date of the composition we are discussing We maintain, however, that it is possible to disbelieve in the inspiration of Hermas without imputing folly either to him who made the claim or to those who admitted it We must not regard the men of the 2nd cent. as fools because their views as to God's manner of teaching His church were different from those which the experience of so many following centuries has taught us. A Christian cannot regard them as fools for believing that in the time of our Lord and His apostles a great manifestation of the supernatural was made to the world. How long and to what extent similar manifestations would present themselves in. the ordinary life of the church only experience could skew, and they are not to be scorned if their expectations have not been borne out by later experience. In particular, if we are to set down as fools all who have believed that supernatural intimations may be given in dreams, our list would be a long one, and would include many eminent names; and though modern science may regard visions as phenomena admitting a natural explanation, it is not reasonable to expect such a view from the science of the 2nd cent. What Hermas tells of his personal history and of the times and circumstances of his visions conveys to us the impression of artless truth. His information about himself is contained in incidental allusions, not very easy to piece together; and the author of a fictitious narrative would not have conveyed so obscurely what he tells about his hero. He would probably also have made him a man of some eminence, holding high church office, whereas Hermas always speaks of the presbyters as if he were not one of them, and could have no motive for making his hero one engaged in trade unsuccessfully and not very honestly, and an elderly man with a termagant wife and ill brought-up children. On the other hand, if the book be true history, it is very much to the point that Hermas should get a revelation, directing his wife to keep her tongue in better order, and his children to pay more respect to their parents; nor need we suppose Hermas guilty of dishonesty in thus turning his gift of prophecy to the advantage of his family comfort; for nothing can be more natural than that the thoughts which troubled his waking moments should present themselves in his visions. There is nothing incredible in the supposition that the pictures of the first vision did present themselves to the mind of Hernias as he relates them. They must have been very vivid, and have impressed him strongly. Still, it is a year before he has another vision. After this he begins to fast and pray and look out eagerly for more revelations. Finally he comes to believe himself to be under the constant guardianship of the shepherd angel of repentance, and he ascribes all the lessons he desires to teach to the inspiration of this heavenly monitor. But perhaps his language expresses no more than his belief in the divine inspiration under which he wrote, for elsewhere he states that he does not regard the personages of his visions as having objective reality, and those things which in the earlier part are represented as spoken to him by the church are afterwards said to have been spoken by God's Spirit under the form of the church. That be sincerely believed himself to be the bearer of a divine message appears to be the case. A summary of his convictions would serve also for those of a man in many respects very unlike, Savonarola ( a ) that the church of his time had corrupted itself, and had become deeply tainted with worldliness; (b ) that a time of great tribulation was at hand, in which the dross should be purged away; (c ) that there was still an intervening time, during which repentance was possible and would be accepted; (d ) that he was himself divinely commissioned to preach that repentance.
Date and Authorship.â€”Antiquity furnishes authority for three suppositions: (a) the author was the Hermas to whom a salutation is sent in Rom_16:14; or (b) brother to Pius bp. of Rome at the middle of the 2nd cent.; or (c) contemporary with Clement who was bishop at the very beginning of that century or the end of the preceding. The first may be set aside as a highly improbable guess of Origen. The author shews no wish to be taken for the apostolic Hermas but distinctly speaks of the apostles as all dead. A forger could have found many more suitable names than Hermas one of the least prominent in N.T. and of which except in connexion with this book there is no trace in ecclesiastical tradition. If our view of the book be correct the author had no motive for antedating it. His prophecy announced tribulation close at hand and only a short intervening period for repentance. To represent such a prophecy as being already 50 or 100 years old would be to represent it as having failed and in fact The Shepherd did lose credit when it had been so long in existence. Hermas seems to have thought that if the worldliness of the church could be repented of and reformed it would be possible to keep it pure during the brief remainder of its existence. He announced therefore forgiveness on repentance for sins of old Christians prior to the date of his revelation but none for those of new converts or for sins subsequent to his revelation. To date his revelation 50 years back would have defeated his own purpose and made his message inapplicable to those whom he addressed. Again the acceptance of the book by the church of Rome is inexplicable if it were introduced by no known person containing as it does revelations purporting to have been given among themselves and to a leading member of their church. If the first readers of the work of Elchesai or of the Clementine homilies asked Why did we never hear of these things before? these books had provided an answer in the fiction that the alleged authors had only communicated them under a pledge of strict secrecy; in this book on the contrary Hermas is directed (Vis. iii. 8) to go after three days and speak in the hearing of all the saints the words he had heard in his vision. Elsewhere he enables us to understand how this direction could be carried out. We learn (Mand. 11) that certain persons were then recognized in the church as having prophetic gifts and that at the Christian meetings for worship if after prayer ended one of them were filled with the Holy Spirit he might speak unto the people as the Lord willed. The simplest explanation how the Roman Church came to believe in its inspiration seems then to be that it had previously admitted the inspiration of its author that he held the position of a recognized prophet as in the East did Quadratus and Ammia of Philadelphia (Eus. H. E. v. 16) and that he really did publicly deliver his message in the church assembly. As the 2nd cent. went on the public exercise of prophetic powers in the church seems to have ceased and when revived by Montanus and his followers had to encounter much opposition. The ensuing controversy led the church to insist more strongly on the distinction between the inspiration of the canonical writers and that of holy men of later times and the Muratorian fragment exhibits the feeling entertained towards the end of the cent. that the list of prophetic writings had been closed and that no production of the later years of the church could be admitted.
But if, as we think, the Hermas of The Shepherd is not a fictitious character, but a real person known in the church of Rome in the 2nd cent., we incline to follow Zahn in relying more on his connexion with Clement than with Pius. Zahn places The Shepherd c. 97; but if we assign that date to the epistle of Clement we ought to allow a few years for that letter to have obtained the celebrity and success which the notice in Hermas implies. That notice need not necessarily have been published in the lifetime of Clement, for Hermas is not instructed to deliver his message immediately, but only after the completion of his revelations, and this may have been after Clement's death.
Are, then, any indications of date in the book inconsistent with such an early date?
There is much affinity between the leading ideas of Montanism and of the book of Hermas, especially as to the fall of many in the church from the ideal of holiness. The question was asked, Was it possible to renew such again to repentance? In both our Lord's second coming was eagerly looked forward to, and a knowledge of God's coming dealings with His church sought for from visions and revelations. But the teaching of Hermas is less rigorous than the Montanistic, and all that is special to Montanism is unknown to him.
Hermas directs his efforts almost exclusively to combating the relaxation of morality in the church; he scarcely notices doctrinal errors, and no reference to Gnostic doctrines can be found in his book, unless it be a statement (Sim. v. 7) that there were some who took licence to misuse the flesh on account of a denial of the resurrection of the body. But these false teachers seem to have been all in the church, not separate from it. In the passage which seems most distinctly to refer to Gnostics ( ib. ix. 22), they are described as "wishing to know everything and knowing nothing," as "praising themselves that they have understanding, and wishing to be teachers, though they were really fools." Yet, he adds, "to these repentance is open, for they were not wicked, but rather silly and without understanding." The seeds of Gnosticism had begun to spring up even in apostolic times; but we cannot think that Hermas would have written thus after Gnosticism had become dangerous to the Roman church.
Hermas rebukes the strifes for precedence among Christians (Vis. iii. 9; Mand. ix.; Sim. viii. 7), and it is difficult to find in his book evidence of the existence of the episcopal form of government or of resistance to its introduction. He appears to use ἐπίσκοπος as synonymous with πρεσβύτερος and always speaks of the government of the church as in the hands of the elders, without hinting that one elder enjoyed authority over others. Clement, indeed, is recognized as the organ by which the church of Rome communicated with foreign churches; but we are not told that implied a pre-eminence in domestic rule. Similarly, though we infer that the presbyters had seats of honour in the church assemblies, we are not told that one had a seat higher than the rest. Either it was not the case or it was too much a matter of course to be mentioned. But a message regarding dissensions is sent τοῖς προηγουμένοις τῆς ἐκκλησίας καὶ τοῖς πρωτοκαθεδρίταις . It is a very forced explanation of the last plural noun to suppose it means some one of the προηγούμενοι who desired to make himself the first, nor have we reason to think that the word implies any sarcasm. It is more natural to understand that besides the presbyters there were others, such as the teachers and prophets ( Mand. xi.), who in church assemblies were given seats of honour.
The church had at the time of this writing enjoyed a good deal of quiet, but this had evidently been broken by many harassing persecutions, in which some had apostatized. Usually their danger is described as no more than of loss of goods and of injury to worldly business; but there had been (though perhaps not recently) martyrs who had given their lives and endured crosses and wild beasts for the Name of the Son of God. They could have saved themselves by denial or by committing idolatry. Thus they suffered as Christians, and it has been inferred that the date must be later than the well-known letter of Trajan to Pliny which first made the profession of Christianity unlawful. Yet it seems possible to assign an earlier date to The Shepherd, and to I. Peter which is affected by the same argument, when we remember that Trajan only gave imperial sanction to the rule on which Pliny had been acting already, and on which others had probably been acting previously; or Pliny implies that trials of Christians were then well known. And it may be argued that after the edict of Trajan obstinate profession of Christianity was liable to be punished with death, whereas in the time of Hermas it seems to have been punished only by fine or imprisonment. Hermas lost his business in the persecution, having been betrayed, it seems, by his children. At the time of the visions he was apparently farming. Zahn, who places the persecution under Domitian, ingeniously conjectures (p. 133) that Hermas was one of those to whom, as Dion Cassius tells (68, 2), Nerva made restitution by giving land instead of the goods of which they had been despoiled by Domitian.
It is disappointing to have to add that an ordinary Christian of to-day would find in the book neither much interest nor edification, and that the historical student finds in it much less help than he might expect. Hermas is absorbed in trying to bring about a practical reform; he shews much less interest in doctrine, in which possibly as a layman he was perhaps not accurately instructed; he never quotes either O. or N. T., nor is his language much influenced by Scripture phraseology, and some would describe him as having preached not the Gospel, but merely a dry morality. The inference was natural, if Pauline Christianity is so much in the background in Hermas, that he must have been an anti-Pauline Jewish Christian; and this may seem confirmed by the fact that the N.T. book which has most stamped itself on his mind is the Ep. of St. James. Yet a closer examination finds no real trace of Judaism in him. It is scarcely credible that one brought up a Jew should seem so unfamiliar with O.T. The Jewish nation and its privileges are not even mentioned, nor the distinction between Jew and Gentile. Michael is not the guardian angel of the nation, but of the Christian church.
The only express quotation is from the lost apocryphal book of Eldad and Modad. His use of either O. or N. T, not being indicated by formal quotation, but only by coincidences of language or thought, there is room for difference of opinion as to his use of particular books. The proofs of the use of the Epp. of James and of Ephesians seem decisive, and only a little less strong in the case of I. Peter and I. Cor. Of his use of the Gospel and Revelation of St. John we are persuaded, though we admit that the evidence is not conclusive. We believe also that the knowledge of sayings of our Lord which Hermas unmistakably exhibits was obtained from our Synoptic Gospels, the coincidences with St. Mark (see Zahn, p. 457) being most striking.
Where Hermas had lived before he was sold to Rome we can only conjecture. According to a reading which there seems no good ground to question, he supposes himself in one of his visions to have been transported to Arcadia, and Mahaffy says (Rambles in Greece, p. 330, 2nd ed.) that the scenery he describes suits that in Arcadia, and does not suit the neighbourhood of Rome. Zahn conjectures that Hermas was born in Egypt because the architecture of the tower of Hermas's visions resembles the description in Josephus of the Jewish temple in the Egyptian Heliopolis.
The Shepherd has been edited by Hilgenfeld ( Nov. Test. ext. Can. Rec. 1866) and Gebhardt and Harnack ( Patres Apostolici, 1877). The latter ed. is indispensable, and contains a full list of editions, and of works treating of Hermas. Some interesting discussion is to be found in the reviews of Gebhardt's ed. by Overbeck (Schurer, Theol. Literaturzeitung, 1878), Donaldson in Theological Review (1878), and Zahn, GÃ¶ttingen gelehrte Anzeigen (1878). Zahn, Der Hirt des Hermas (1868), is the work from which we have learned most. Another ed. is by Funk ( Pat. Apost. TÃ¼bingen, 1878). A Collation of the Athos Codex of the Shepherd with intro. by Dr. Lambros, trans. and ed. with preface and appendices by Dr. J. A. Robinson, has been pub. by Camb. Univ. Press; a cheap Eng. trans. of The Shepherd by Dr. C. Taylor (2 vols.) by S. P.C. K.; and in Ante-Nic. Fathers, vol. ii. See also F. Spitta, Zur Gesch. und Lit. der Urchristenthums, vol. ii. (GÃ¶ttingen, 1898), and Funk, in Theol. Quartalschr. lxxii. and lxxxv.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Hermas, Known As the Shepherd'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hwd/h/hermas-known-as-the-shepherd.html. 1911.
the <>Sixth Sunday after Easter